About three weeks ago, we all wished each other a happy 2022. However, that has remained wishful thinking with the Omicron variant of COVID-19 upending our lives. More than Omicron itself, which is more transmissible than Delta but far milder, the response to the variant in terms of the restrictions that have been imposed on us has once again affected our daily lives. Much has been written about the disproportionate response to Omicron. It stands to reason that if restrictions like night curfews and border checks did not restrict an earlier variant, they will not restrict a more transmissible one.
But we as a society abandoned reason long ago, when we decided to close schools for about 20 months. The unreasonable response to Omicron has had an impact especially on children. Schools have become an easy target for politicians: closing them gives them the benefit of being seen as “doing something”, even as being caring and sensitive, to “contain COVID-19”. But this is an emotional reaction and not rooted in reason and fact. Even before the second COVID-19 wave, experts across the board advised that schools should be the last to close and first to open. Ignoring all this advice has brought us the ignoble distinction of being among the countries with the longest school closures during the pandemic. Despite the Omicron surge, most other countries have kept schools open, prioritising the well-being of children.
The primary (emotional) “reason” being provided for school closure is to “protect children”. Let us pause for a moment and examine this reason with an analogy. Suppose the government told us that children should no longer travel in cars and on motorbikes, as these are dangerous, what would our reaction be? Surely, we would consider it absurd. Now, data show that the risk of COVID-19 for those under 25 years is much lower than the risk from traffic accidents. So, school closures to “protect children” is as absurd as banning children from travelling in cars.
Are schools super-spreaders? We are told that children could carry the virus from school to elders at home. The scientific evidence for schools as COVID-19 hotspots is very weak. Indeed, studies have shown the opposite. For instance, a study in Spain looked at data from over 1 million children of all ages in schools, and found that the R-value (rate of virus spread) is well less than one for all schoolchildren. Furthermore, the R-value is lower for lower ages, as low as 0.2 for pre-primary children. So, the practice of shutting Anganwadis and primary schools, which many States have done, is unscientific. Sweden never closed its schools for children under 16, and there was no extra risk for teachers compared to other professions. But at this point, one does not need careful studies, but only plain common sense. How can schools be super-spreaders when every other place in India is crowded: banks, markets, buses, trains, airports, and even malls and theatres?
Does online education constitute education? Early on in the pandemic, whether children would be affected by COVID-19 may have been an unknown. But it was always known that online education would be a poor replacement for physical classes, and that children, especially in primary and pre-primary classes, can learn as well as socially and emotionally develop only through human interactions with teachers and peers. Yet, by shutting schools, we have experimented with their lives. The results of this experiment are devastating. A detailed survey report from September 2021 shows the extent of the impact. The reading and writing levels of children have declined, with nearly half of them unable to read more than a few words. More than a third of the them were not studying at all.
Even going along with the baseless and implicit assurance that learning issues can somehow be made up at some unspecified future date, mental health issues are deeply concerning. Despite a shorter school closure than India, the U.K. has reported alarming increases in mental health issues among kids. Likewise, the American Academy of Pediatrics called the mental health crisis among children a national emergency. In India, aside from mental health issues, there have been other severe consequences of school closure. Malnutrition is a serious problem; by neglecting mid-day meals, we have worsened it. Decades of progress against the severe malice of child labour has been reversed due to extended school closure. As per the 2011 Census, we had an estimated 10.1 million children in child labour. If we had daily updates on malnutrition or child labour cases, we would probably have paid attention to the plight of India’s children and not closed schools this long.
The vaccination argument
Yet another myth in the context of schools is that they are safe only after children are vaccinated against COVID-19. This too defies logic as schools were open in several other countries even before adults were vaccinated. Some medical professionals have argued that COVID-19 vaccines are necessary for children as otherwise children may carry the infection from school back home to adults. Aside from the obvious ethical question of jabbing children for the benefit of adults, such a stance is also quite unscientific, as it is known now that the current COVID-19 vaccines (even boosters) do not prevent infection or transmission. While no one can argue against a vaccine that is shown to be safe and effective after rigorous trials for children, there is no case for linking schools and education to a vaccine still under clinical trial. There can be no question of emergency authorisation of vaccines for children as there has been no COVID-19 emergency for children. This was indeed the position of the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation. The government nod for vaccinating children in the 15-18 age group defies explanation.
Education is a constitutional right. By closing schools for this long and providing a poor substitute with online education, we have violated children’s right. Everyone must now speak up for children. A group of us has started an initiative, ‘Happy 2022, Happy for Kids Too’, which has been endorsed by various epidemiologists, doctors and educationists. We hope that 2022 and the years from now are normal for children in all respects, including a good school life and happy childhood. Children have needlessly suffered for too long, not from COVID-19 which has thankfully spared them, but from irrational and disproportional restrictions and school closures. We urge all concerned citizens to join the Chain-for-Children’s-Cheer at happy22kids.org to make this wish come true.
Bhaskaran Raman is a Professor at IIT Bombay. Views are personal